Thursday, November 20, 2014

His task is not to educate unusual boys but to produce good honest fools - Herman Hesse hates school

From one prodigy to another, to The Prodigy, a  short 1905 Hermann Hesse novel.  Unterm Rad is the real title, which is not even remotely The Prodigy, but rather, to use the title of an older translation, Beneath the Wheel.  The wheel of school and homework and society so on.  The novel is about a sensitive boy genius who is destroyed by the inflexibility and lack of imagination of his school and his thick-headed father.  There is another way to tell the story, but let’s go with this one.

John Stuart Mill was, by contrast, a comparatively insensitive genius, although more sensitive than he or anyone else had guessed.  Both Hesse’s prodigy and Mill lost their mothers at an early age, so they have that in common.

That is not true about Mill, by the way; completely wrong.  His mother lived a long time.  I had just assumed that she had died when Mill was young because he never mentions her.  It did strike me as odd, given that his mother was obviously absent, that younger siblings kept appearing.  Autobiography may be a much stranger book than it first seems.

Back to Hesse.  I know that the above summary of the novel is correct because the narrator directly tells me so:

A schoolmaster would rather have a whole class of duffers than one genius, and strictly speaking he is right, for his task is not to educate unusual boys but to produce good Latinists, mathematicians, and good honest fools…  we have the comfort of knowing that in true geniuses the wounds almost always heal, and they become people who create their masterpieces in spite of school and who later, when they are dead and the pleasant aura of remoteness hangs over them, are held up by schoolmasters to succeeding generations as exemplary and noble beings.  (Ch. 4, 85)

The narrator has picked his side.  The novel – the narrator – can have a tone of adolescent self-pity that is not so appealing.  Hesse was twenty-eight when it was published, but the narrator sounds younger.  Perhaps Hesse was younger when he wrote the book.  He did have the sense to create some distance by making the more autobiographical character not the main hero but rather the hero’s school friend, a wilder, more poetical creature, who reads not the Classics but rather Romantics like Schiller, Shakespeare, and Ossian, and who speaks “in the manner of romantic youths enamoured of Heine” (71).  Hesse can then explore the real mental crisis he experienced at school from different perspectives by dividing his symptoms and sufferings among the two characters.

Here’s how wild that poetic kid, Heilner, is:

Hans was also horrified when he first noticed how Heilner treated his text-books…  He was disgusted to see that [Heilner] had covered whole pages with pencilled scribble.  The west coast of the Spanish peninsula [it’s an atlas] had been distorted into a grotesque profile in which the nose reached from Oporto to Lisbon and the Cape Finsterre region had been stylized into a curly wig, while Cape St Vincent formed the beautiful twisted point of a man’s beard.  It went on like this for page after page…  Hans was accustomed to treat his books as sacred possessions and this disrespect seemed to him partly a desecration of the holy of holies, partly a criminal yet heroic act.  (70)

A madman.  Thank goodness he is expelled.

The boarding school portrayed in the novel is real and still operating.  It is housed in a Cistercian monastery dating back to the 12th century.  Neither sensitive nor a genius, I thought it sounded pretty great.

Quotations and page numbers are from the W. J. Strachan translation, Penguin, 1973.


  1. Insightful comments as always Tom.

    I have read a fair amount of Hesse but not this one.

    I find the adolescent tone that you allude to somewhat common with Hesse's characters.

    I love that passage about the defacing of the textbook.I relate a little to the shocked reaction :)

  2. I love this: "It did strike me as odd, given that his mother was obviously absent, that younger siblings kept appearing. Autobiography may be a much stranger book than it first seems."
    I also think the Hesse & Autobiography sound interesting, especially as someone who home schools and has a kid who is much smarter than I.

  3. Both books could be something like home schooling cautionary tales, or classics, but I honestly don't think there is anything any thoughtful home schooler doesn't know. Don't push your kid as hard as James Mill pushed his son - right, got it. Let him read Romantic as well as ancient Greek poetry. If the kid loves fishing - now I'm in the Hesse book - maybe a little more fishing and a little less Hebrew grammar is okay.

    Brian, I wondered about that, if the adolescent tone was common. This is just based on Hesse's long-time popularity with adolescents. The last time I read Hesse, I was an adolescent.

  4. I started a Hesse biography two months ago but I'm still at the beginning. It's so dense. I was surprised to find out what a "problem child" he was. A real rebel. He was wild, ran away, did a lot of threatening -"I'm going to kill myself if you don't . . ." - Passive resistance - not talking and brood endlessly. Because he was outspoke, criticizing authority openly he was an explosive element in a scholl like the one he was in. Interestingly, I think he wasn't as sensitive as people thought. He was more angry than low, but he did suffer. Authority was a yoke for him. That's why I think "Under the yoke" would be a good title.

  5. Somehow I guessed from the text of this novel that the more Hesse-like character was not the protagonist but rather his wilder, more poetical school chum. You are confirming my intuition, which is quite pleasing.

  6. As it's well known, Reich-Ranicki's choices for the best 20 German language novels were:

    Werther and The Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang Goethe;
    The Devil's Elixirs, by E. T. A. Hoffmann;
    Green Henry, by Gottfried Keller,
    Jenny Treibel and Effie Briest, by Theodor Fontane.
    Buddenbrook and The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann;
    Professor Unrat, by Heinrich Mann;
    THE PRODIGY, by Hermann Hesse;
    Young Torless, by Robert Musil;
    The Process, by Franz Kafka;
    Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Doblin;
    The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth;
    The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers;
    The Strudlhof Steps, by Heimito von Doderer,
    Pigeons on the Grass, by Wolfgang Koeppen,
    The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass;
    Montauk, by Max Frisch,
    Woodcutters, by Thomas Bernhard

  7. I think that Reich-Ranicki's list first drew my attention to this particular Hesse novel. It puts me at 12 of 20, not bad, not bad.